Alfred Blalock was born in Culloden, Georgia on April 5, 1889. He graduated with an AB degree in 1918 and entered Johns Hopkins Medical School where he was awarded the M.D. in 1922. Blalock spent the next two and a half years at Hopkins, completing an Internship in Urology, and then an Assistant Residency on the General Surgical Service, followed by a Fellowship in Otolaryngology. During the summer of 1925, he moved to Boston to begin a Residency at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. However, he never unpacked his bags. Instead, he accepted the position as Resident Surgeon in the program of the newly constructed Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, joining his good friend and fellow Southerner, Tinsley Harrison, who was Vanderbilt's first Chief Resident on the Medical Service. Alfred Blalock arrived in Nashville, TN on September 17, 1925 to work with Barney Brooks, Professor of Surgery and Chief of the Surgical Service.
Dr. Brooks was chairman of the Department of Surgery from 1925 until 1952. At that time Vanderbilt graduated one chief resident per year, its first being Alfred Blalock, M.D. After completing his residency Blalock stayed on the faculty to do research on shock therapy.
Blalock is known for his pioneering research on the nature and treatment of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock, and is credited with saving the lives of many casualties during World War II, and with the first open heart operation for tetralogy of Fallot (blue baby). But his teaching techniques also set him apart.
“He was entirely dedicated to the education of students and residents,” says Dr. Walter H. Merrill, professor of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery at VUMC. “He talked a lot over the years about his real joy in life – working with residents. He liked to give positive reinforcement. He was courtly and courteous.”
At Vanderbilt, Blalock was active in teaching the 3rd and 4th year medical students and was placed in charge of the surgical research laboratory. Blalock's laboratory experiments at Vanderbilt proved that surgical shock was due to 'loss of effective circulating blood volume and refuted the basis for the beneficial and extensive use of blood and plasma in the care of wounded men in W.W. II.'*
Blalock's very productive years at Vanderbilt were marred by recurring bouts with tuberculosis. He took the 'cure' at the Trudeau Clinic, remaining there for a year. He then went to Europe as a traveling Fellow, visiting many well known surgical clinics and surgical research laboratories. His tuberculosis recurred and he received treatment in Berlin and at Cambridge. Blalock returned to Vanderbilt and kept up a heavy schedule of teaching, operating, research, and writing. By the time he was 40 years of age the number of his publications exceeded 100 and he had published his monograph entitled, Principles of Surgical Care: Shock and Other Problems. Blalock's experimental work during the decade of the 1930's was 'enormously facilitated by the expertise of Vivien Thomas, a high school graduate, who begun to work in laboratory as Dr. Blalock's technician.'*
He thereafter became Professor of Surgery and Chairman of the Department of Surgery at Johns Hopkins. Another of his research interests was pulmonary hypertension. Using dogs, he devised an operation in which the subclavian artery was anastomosed to the pulmonary artery. 'This failed to produce pulmonary hypertion, but was the procedure used many years at Johns Hopkins in the original blue baby operation.'*
The Alfred Blalock Surgical Resident Award is given annually to the principal investigator and author of the best laboratory or clinical research report made during residency. Special Consideration is given to any new or innovative approach to a surgical problem and the nature of the findings reported.
*Scott, H. William. History of Surgery at Vanderbilt University. History of Surgery at Vanderbilt University. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Medical Center, 1996. pp. 52-58.